COMMENTARY: Delaware’s duty to apologize for slavery

EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of a recent request by the Afro-American Historical Society in Wilmington asking Gov. Jack A. Markell to sign an apology for slavery, this never-delivered speech was drafted by then-chairman of the Dover Human Relations Commission Dr. Samuel B. Hoff on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010, a day before the Slavery Apology Resolution was scheduled to be discussed by the Dover City Council.
The council approved the resolution by a 5-3 vote on Feb. 22, but without public comment. The resolution was subsequently forwarded to the Delaware General Assembly.

What does it mean for one person to own another? That concept is so alien to natural and universal rights as to be repulsive; an anathema.

In my religion, the Scripture tells adherents that “We are not the children of the bondwoman but of the free.” Yet that was not the case for thousands who came to the shores of Delaware starting four centuries ago, brought against their will and in chains by multiple foreign powers.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

But now you have the opportunity to do something about this historical atrocity: pass the Slavery Apology Resolution that is now before you. As you vote, consider these questions: Is this action necessary? Will it make a difference? The answer to both of these questions must be “yes.”

The Dover Human Relations Commission has demonstrated, over 33 months, three public meetings, and untold hours of work on this issue that a clear consensus has developed among the citizens of Dover, and for that matter, among residents of the state of Delaware. I remind the Dover City Council that we serve the same constituents, and their views should be yours on this most-critical issue.

When you vote, do not do so based on petty politics or personalities, but on the principle that all are created equal, not diminished an iota by the color of one’s skin or by the coordinates on a map. And remember what it has taken in this city and state to achieve that promise:

• Remember the thousands who suffered in bondage in the antebellum state of Delaware;

• Remember the black Delaware soldiers who died in support of the Union, a few of whom were commemorated in a Camden ceremony last spring;

• Remember U.S. Sen. Bayard from Delaware, who in the 1870s argued against the “amalgamation of the races;”

• Remember how the state of Delaware took federal grant money under the Second Morrill Act and used it to establish segregated educational facilities at the college level, while legitimizing such separation at all levels in its 1897 Constitution;

• Remember the one official case of lynching in the state of Delaware between 1880-1930, combined with the countless instances of violence toward minority citizens;

• Remember the two native Delawareans who served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II;

• Remember the unanimously decided Brown v. Board of Education case which ruled the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional, and how citizens from Delaware served as participants in that case;

• Remember the desegregation order of Brown II, and how the state’s delay in doing so led to the Evans v. Buchanan case, which led to the first instance of large-scale inter-district busing in the nation;

• Remember the efforts of the local chapter of the NAACP, who succeeded in the 1980s in changing the at-large method of election for the seats which you (Dover City Council) now occupy;

Members of Dover City Council, let Dover, Delaware, be the first to bury the memory of the state being among the last to ratify the 13th Amendment, and for taking 36 years and two tries before doing so!

It is certainly appropriate to register your position as a governmental body with another such entity, whether or not it is above you in jurisdiction.

That is the essence of American federalism. You can justify it individually or collectively by the petition clause of the 1st Amendment, or by the “reserved powers for the people” meaning of the 9th Amendment, or by the General Welfare clause of the federal or state constitutions, or by a multitude of other rationales.

The Slavery Apology Resolution uses such words as “urges” and “recommends” and “implores.” These words are less pushy than enslaving, lynching, segregating, or discriminating, all the consequence of the manifestation of prejudice and racism.

But make no mistake what we are asking for: it is no less than balancing the scales of justice. For if the Confederate flag be flown within the borders of this state, and if Confederate heroes can have a monument in Sussex, then, we must grant this acknowledgment of responsibility for slavery and its aftermath, which is the first step toward forgiveness, reconciliation, education, and tolerance.

Again from the Scriptures, a warning: “He who leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity.”

Members of Dover City Council, should you possess the wisdom, vision, and courage to pass the Slavery Apology Resolution, then, what began as a DHRC initiative and which has been embraced by a supermajority of Dover citizens will go down in history, and the tireless efforts of those who fought to end slavery and its vestiges will not have been in vain.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He has written and published extensively on the American Constitution and U.S. history.

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